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The EU directive on services in the internal market is a key priority for the UK presidency. At present, we are working with the European Council, the European Parliament and other member states to achieve a successful outcome to a series of ongoing negotiations. We hope to have made significant progress by the end of the year.
The Minister will know that under the proposals, solicitors working abroad would be subject to the Law Society's professional rules, rather than those of the country in which they operated. Bearing in mind that both Germany and France strongly oppose these changes, does the Minister think it fair that Britain is opening itself up to competition in legal services, while a number of our European partners refuse to reciprocate? Will he give an assurance that we will not proceed unless agreement on this matter is reached across Europe, and that we will not open up our legal services to unfair competition?
The hon. Gentleman will know that this Government have backed the liberalisation of legal services for many years; indeed, we are pleased to see such liberalisation progressing in Europe and beyond, with countries such as India, Japan and China looking to liberalise their legal services. The Department of Trade and Industry is leading our discussions on the regulation of EU legal services offered here, and that debate goes on. But I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that during the 29 committee meetings held so far on services within the European internal market, this issue was not described as an obstacle that we cannot surmount.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Government on all that they are doing to promote UK legal services not only in Europe but around the world? Is it not true that many foreign lawyers practise in London and throughout the UK, and that countries that adopt a restrictive approach to this issue—be they in Europe or elsewhere—are cutting off their nose to spite their face?
My hon. and learned Friend is right. The liberalisation of legal services is important, because it is important to the British economy and is worth, on the last estimate of a year ago, about £2 billion. There has been a significant debate within Europe and liberalisation is in effect within Europe. It is now the case that 35 countries around the world are represented in the City of London. That shows the benefits of liberalisation. Consumers and clients who want services, particularly cross-border services, should be able to receive their partner of choice from whatever country that person comes from.
The international legal market is dominated by the expertise, experience, networks and high reputation of British lawyers. We allow and encourage foreign legal competitors in England, so why will the Government not stand up for this sector and insist on fair and equal access for our lawyers abroad?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who knows about these matters—he did not declare his interest—is not behind everything that the Government are doing on these issues. There are international law firms all around the capitals of the world and the hon. Gentleman knows that they include British firms. Because of the work of my Department, they bring in £2 billion to our economy. He is wrong in making that assessment.
Order. The Minister will know that there is no need for such a declaration on a supplementary question.